Saturday’s smiles

Santa Claus: an Engineering Analysis

1. No known species of reindeer can fly, but there are 300,000 species of living organisms yet to be classified, and while most of these are insects and germs, this does not completely rule out flying reindeer which only Santa has seen.

2. There are 2 billion children in the world (persons under 18). But since Santa doesn’t (appear) to handle Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, or Buddhist children, that reduces the workload by 85% of the total, leaving 378 million according to the Population Reference Bureau. At an average (census) rate of 3.5 children per household, that’s 91.8 million homes. One presumes there is at least one good child per house.

3. Santa has 31 hours of Christmas to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth, assuming he travels east to west (which seems logical). This works out to 822.6 visits per second. This is to say that for each Christian household with good children, Santa has 1/1000th of a second to park, hop out of the sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stocking, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left, get back up the chimney, get back into the sleigh and move on to the next house. Asusming that each of these 91.8 million stops are evenly distributed around the earth, which, of course, we know to be false, but for the purposes of our calculations we will accept, we are now talking about 0.78 miles per household, for a total trip of 75.5 million miles, not counting stops to do what most of us do at least once every 31 hours, plus feeding, etc. That means that Santa’s sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second, 3000 times the speed of sound. For purposes of comparison, the fastest man-made vehicle on earth, the Ulysses space probe, moves at a poky 27.4 miles per second – a conventional reindeer can run, at tops 15 miles per hour.

4. The payload on the sleigh adds another interesting element. Assuming each child gets nothing more than a medium sized lego set (2 pounds), the sleigh is carrying 321,300 tons, not counting Santa, who is invariably described as overweight. On land, conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds. Even granting the “flying reindeer” can pull TEN TIMES the normal amount, we cannot do the job with eight, or even nine. We need 214,200 reindeer. This increased the payload – not even counting the weight of the sleigh to 353,430 tons. Again, for comparison – this is four times the weight of the Queen Elizabeth – 5,353,000 tons travelling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance. This will heat the reindeer up in the same fashion as spacecrafts re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. The lead pair will absorb 14.3 quintillion joules of energy per second each. In short, they will burst into flames almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them, and creating a deafening sonic boom in their wake. The entire reindeer team will be vaporized with 4.26 thousandths of a second. Santa, meanwhile, will be subject to centrifugal forces 17,500.06 times greater than gravity. A 250 pound Santa (which seems ludicrously slim) would be pinned to the back of the sleigh by a 4,315,015 pound force.

Rebuttal:

If people are going to attempt to apply science to the question of Santa, the least they can do is to get it right. The so-called “Engineer” that wrote the paper suggesting that Santa Claus is dead had it all wrong.

A) In paragraph 5, the Engineer states that “600,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance.” Assuming that this true, it may well be that the reindeer are protected by some sort of heat shield, which is the basis of the “red nose” legend. More to the point, the “air resistance” theory is a vast oversimplification, and a sloppy one at that. In comparing a parachute to a javelin, one can see that there is no simple, direct, predictable relationship between the weight of an object and its air resistance. The air resistance theory completely ignores many possible configurations of Santa’s team that could greatly reduce air resistance.

Paragraph 5 is invalidated all the more when one considers paragraph 1, which states that most of the 300,000 unclassified species on the earth are insects and microorganisms. This suggests that it is overwhelmingly probable that any unknown species (such as flying reindeer) is extremely small (possibly even microscopic), with correspondingly low air resistance.

Also, note that various small species (e.g. bumblebee) have been known to accomplish feats of aviation that have proven quite difficult for science to explain. Furthermore, many small species (e.g. ants) possess strength that is immense proportional to their size. Also note that every known species has a body structure capable of withstanding whatever stresses are created at the top speed at which the creature is capable of traveling.

Therefore, contrary to the Engineer’s conclusion, the possible existence of unknown, very small, very strong, flying creatures is indicated, and all of the Engineer’s statistics on the mass, speed, capacity, and durability of standard Reindeer are therefore irrelevant.

B) If we accept the notion that Santa moves from East to West (an assumption that the Engineer makes in Paragraph 3) then we must also assume that he is moving in a vaguely North-South traversing path as he works his way West. This implies that, if he chose to, he could make several stops at the Pole to re-load the sleigh, and therefore it is not necessary for him to carry the entire payload all at once as described by the Engineer.

The reader may raise the objection that most depictions of Santa’s procedures include a single annual departure from the Pole. However, one must also consider that these same depictions contain many other omissions and simplifications, such as the implication that Santa spends several minutes on each delivery. Even using unrealistically favorable figures, this is mathematically impossible. This and other examples force us to consider these depictions to be strictly allegorical. This makes sense, since a documentary would not be much fun for the target audience.

C) Consider that most chimneys are too small to accommodate an average-sized man, let alone a 250 (plus) pound man. This implies that Santa has a way of entering and exiting dwellings through access paths much smaller than those that would otherwise be required. If the same technique that Santa uses to transport himself and the gifts past locked doors also decreases mass (or makes it irrelevant), then the payload problem is completely solved. (Note that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.)

D) If we accept the notion that Santa’s intelligence gathering is good enough for him to determine who is bad/good, sleeping/awake etc., then it stands to reason that Santa also knows enough about health problems, travel plans, hurricanes, floods, drive-by shootings, fires, volcanoes, earthquakes, bus crashes, burglaries, etc. etc. etc. to be able to defer or advance some of his deliveries for days or even weeks, thus considerably extending the 31 hour time limit (as mentioned by the Engineer in paragraph 3) for perhaps 3 to 5 percent of children.

E) In paragraph 3, the Engineer admits to the assumption that Christian homes are randomly distributed over the entire surface of the planet. In reality, a majority of the earth’s surface is covered by the oceans, and a great portion of what is left is covered by mountains, deserts, forests, jungles, glaciers, smaller bodies of water, and other natural and man-made features that render the space uninhabitable by humans — or at least extremely sparsely populated by Christians, who largely tend to live in communities with homes placed in neat rows on level ground, or in densely populated vertical blocks in urban areas.

Also, many families tend to gather for the Holidays, thus decreasing the number of Christian dwellings that are actually occupied on December 24-25. Therefore, the aforementioned assumption leads to an *staggering* overestimate of the number of times Santa must travel distances exceeding 60 feet. Also note that this more realistic model includes trans-oceanic voyages during which Santa could take a “bathroom break.”

F) In paragraph 3, the Engineer says that Santa has a very short time in which to “park, hop out of the sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left, get back up the chimney, get back into the sleigh and move on to the next house. “In the previous paragraph, I dispensed with the notion that Santa must actually park and exit the sleigh, enter and exit the dwelling, and then enter and drive the sleigh for each delivery. As far as the snacks go, it is clear that between the households where the parents eat the snacks prior to Santa’s arrival and the households that don’t leave snacks at all, Santa has to deal with a snack in only a small proportion of cases. This means that at every stop Santa must, at a minimum, fill stockings and distribute gifts. The other tasks are performed in much smaller proportions.

G) In paragraph 2, the Engineer presents the assumption that roughly 10 children out of 35 are “good.” Given my personal observations, I conclude that this would lead us to overestimate of the number of Christian households containing at least one “good” child by an order of magnitude at the absolute minimum. This, more than anything else, decreases the number of stops that Santa must make.

In conclusion – all of the Engineer’s calculations are based on figures that are massively skewed, always choosing the worst-case value. The distances to be traveled, the number of stops to be made, the amount of work to be performed, and the amount of cargo to be carried are all FAR smaller than the Engineer estimates.

Santa has NOT been burned to a cinder, he has NOT been squished by the acceleration of his sleigh, and (though I’m quite certain he won’t be visiting that Engineer’s house,) Santa Claus IS coming to town!

One Response to Saturday’s smiles

1. anneharrison says:

Love this, a great read, to contemplate life at the North Pole as I sit sweltering under an Aussie sun. Shared, have a great Christmas, hope santa finds the time to find you!

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